Monthly Archives: March 2015


Robbie Coltrane’s Back

A headline once described David Eustace as a ‘screw turned snapper’. Before he became a celebrity portrait photographer, he was a prison officer at HMP Barlinnie for five years. Now in his early 50s, and with a number of major commercial assignments in his portfolio, Eustace has settled back into Edinburgh with the first photography show at the country’s oldest art gallery.

In the course of two encounters there, he educated me on the use of light and shade, and the art of creating a pose. He said I was all angles, that my elbows needed to come in a bit. He put me off guard and made me laugh, and then said: ‘that’s the shot’. In prison, he said, he learned not to judge people. ‘I grew up with half of them, I wasn’t there to punish people. I was there to make sure they never escaped and never caused any other trouble. Do you know what a murderer looks like? Looks like me, looks like you.’

Eustace has never been a news photographer. Accepted as a mature student at Edinburgh Napier University, and graduating at the age of 29, he hawked his prints round London editors in a backpack. He got his first magazine assignment for GQ. But in his world of portraiture and art photography, the timing of the shot, spotting the pose, is still critical. When Eustace photographed Robbie Coltrane for his first GQ cover, Coltrane warned, jokingly, of getting bored. Eustace asked him to turn around. ‘I said, “I’m doing the back cover”. The only reason I said that was to give me a moment to think.’ Then he saw the shot.

Eustace’s portrait of Coltrane is memorable. In full-cut trousers and braces, white spats, hands stuffed in pockets, Coltrane has the power of a mobster ruminating on the next rub-out. There is a stillness to him. Your eye goes to the thick, perfectly trimmed hair on the nape of the neck, the black and white shoes against a white floor, their subtle shadow, the changing shades of the wall surround. You will pay £4,750 for one from an edition of seven.

It was a similar story with John Byrne, whom Eustace first photographed in 1991 after Tutti Frutti took off. It was the first of several such meetings. The exhibition included ‘John Byrne in Yellow Tweed Suit’, which is now in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Byrne’s head is lowered, shaping his narrow body inwards, introspectively. Eustace took along clothes by the Scottish fashion designer Deryck Walker. ‘Style is part of John, part of his character, part of his work,’ he said, as it was for artists like Picasso or Modigliani. But he wanted to introduce a ‘third person’ to the shoot, a change of costume. Within this stylised context, he played with the pose. ‘I said let your head drift, and I knew I had the shot.’

David Eustace was born in Edinburgh and raised by his adoptive family in Glasgow. He started life doing odd jobs that included the Royal Naval Reserve and ended with Barlinnie, where he was working during the infamous riots in 1987. He first picked up a camera in his 20s, winning best novice photographer in a local camera club. After three years at university, major commercial assignments followed, ranging from work for Anthopologie, the American women’s clothing retailer, to magazine and book portraits, whose subjects ranged from Stephen Fry to Sir Paul McCartney.

The show at the Scottish Gallery was Eustace’s first public selling exhibition. It was tied to the publication of a book, I write to tell you of a baby boy born only yesterday…, whose title is taken from first line of the letter, heavily redacted, that he found in his parents’ home at the age of 14. It was then that he learned he was adopted. It is a beautiful piece of publishing, and Eustace put his soul into it as well as about £13,000 of his own money, largely to pay for an extended trip to China to oversee its printing.

Talking about the trouble taken over its layout, he brightened up. There was a portrait of a Churchillian Sir Norman Foster, for example, the architect of Edinburgh’s Quartermile, placed opposite a young, softly muscular, cheekily tattooed Mark Vidler from Glasgow. There were many such clever contrasts, and they brought Eustace’s work alive in ways that the exhibition often did not. The book is stronger than the show. Eustace has a gift for simple, uncluttered photography, but his excellent magazine work does not always convey staying power, or artistic profundity, in a gallery setting.

For Scotland, however, his exhibition was a milestone We lack a selling gallery for fine art photography of the kind that flourish in London and Europe. Neither is Scottish photography much evident in books. The Scottish Gallery’s first photography show after decades of promoting notable Edinburgh painters was a significant move; a major exhibition surveying Scottish photography is planned next year. ‘We see photography as a mature art form that has been one of the defining threads of modernism,’ said the Gallery’s director, Guy Peploe, ‘but which is still rooted in the tradition of fine art and has not been subsumed into the arid territory of the conceptual.’

Eustace’s show drew from various portfolios. One such was ‘Four Steel Workers’ which was commissioned by The Weir Group. The yellow of the heavy gloves reflects off thick silvered protective overcoats. The Brazilian workers are faceless behind visored helmets, like medieval knights, holding long stirring ladles coated with metal. Some of Eustace’s strongest pieces focus on single details, picking up the artistry in small things, such as a semi-circular steel cutting knife, a Chinese fan in metal.

By contrast, his ‘Highland Heart’ series, his vision of Scottish landscape, left me cold. This originated in a corporate commission and feels tailored for a foreign vision of Scotland. More impressive is the smaller Yosemite series, with the California landmark’s famous half dome looking ugly and smeared, or a ledge of trees picked out of the fog as it might be in a panoramic American landscape painting.

There are other strong portraits; Sir John Hurt as an old style 70s movie star in the Charles Bronson mode, a grainy sideways look with the cigarette hanging out from his lip, (edition of 15, framed £2,500) or golfer Lee Trevino with his wonderfully wide-mouthed laugh (2004, edition of 10 mouth, £1,900). The mysterious Michael, from Glasgow, the oddball of the show, not just its giant size: the subject is hairless with a rare coloured background a blue paler than his eyes or sensuous pale lips.

Eustace’s photographs are single subject, focussed on one sitter. He doesn’t clutter the backgrounds with props. Robin Muir, Vogue’s former picture editor, once told him he took people and presented them ‘bang in the middle’. He was commissioned to photograph the designer Sir Terence Conran, with Tower Bridge – for a series on personal favourites of design. The bridge got in the way of Conran, and Conran got in the way of the bridge. Eustace says he has been most inspired not by Scots such as Albert Watson or Harry Benson but by Germany’s August Sander and the Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi. Sander’s life work was to capture an extraordinary cross-section of post-WWI German society from his studio in Cologne, typically grouped by professions, from local Nazi officers to stationmasters, to cross-dressing artists or architects to the liberated Weimar world of Christopher Isherwood. Eustace clearly sought to do something similar with his early series about buskers, pulling them off the streets to pose.

His portrait of Eve Arnold is magnetic. Arnold is no celebrity, but a photographer who joined the Magnum agency in 1951, four years after its founding by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There is a yearning reach to her look here – from a woman usually on the other side of the camera, whose own career spanned 50 years, from Harlem to Beijing, Malcolm X to Marilyn Monroe. Looking the photographer in the eye, knowing and yet nervous, Arnold’s over-large veined fingers are laced together, with the grey lines of the knuckles. Apparently she considered this, and Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of her, to be her favourites. One can well believe it; it seems the most honest piece in the place.

I want to tell you about a baby boy born only yesterday…

David Eustace

Clearview, £60 and £150 (limited edition),
ISBN: 978 1908337214, PP256

Selected Works: David Eustace

Scottish Gallery

Edinburgh, exhibition ended.

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The Slab Boys

DESTINY was the theme which intrigued, troubled and tormented the Greeks, underwriting their comedy as much as their tragedy, but it appears to be as much a force in modern Paisley as in ancient Thebes. It may take different forms today, particularly for the serf class in their exclusion from power, in the alienation they endure, in the work they are compelled to undertake, in the frustration of their aspirations, in the styles of life imposed on them, in the small decisions they have the liberty to make and in the major decisions others make for them, but it is an ineluctable force. Seeing The Slab Boys again after many years, it seemed to me that fate is a real presence in John Byrne’s drama. Since it is senseless to talk of justice or injustice in this dimension of life, he focuses on those to whom fate has been unkind and gives them a voice.

The play is artfully tailored, with the mechanism and timing of farce interspersed with moments of pathos and insight into the everyday humiliations of life on the margins. Genetic inheritance combines with social deprivation to leave some people bereft. Phil, one of the two slab boys, has a perfectly rhythmed, reproachful speech addressed to the privileged Alan, where every sentence begins ‘what do you know about’, and where he rages against the experience of living in poverty with an unbalanced, suicidal mother, and having to deal at the same time with the condescension of petty power. For most people, especially for those with the status of helot-employees, the irksome irritations of life, as Dostoevsky demonstrated in his satirical portraits of provincial Russia, are not the big, overarching injustices of society or politics, but the petty power exercised unfeelingly by those just one step up the social ladder. This is the stratum of society, with the workers at the lower end and the middle-boss just above them, that Byrne observes. The Slab Boys is masterly in its combination of wry observation, critical creativity and prickly comedy

This is a timely and welcome revival, partly because the play itself is such a wonderful work and too many good Scottish dramas endure their afterlife only in that circle of hell which is a library shelf, and partly because it brings to life conditions which are again becoming commonplace. David Hayman, who directed the first production at the Traverse in 1978, is again director, as well as playing Mr Curry, although his performance in that part is strangely subdued. The eye-catching design is by Byrne, and shows a paint-spattered workshop of Stobo & Co, carpet manufacturers in Paisley, in 1957. The action unfolds over the course of one day, all that is required, as the Greeks knew, to set the course of a life.

There is nothing provincial about The Slab Boys, any more than there was about Ibsen. The Norwegian looked scornfully at bourgeois life in Norway, while Byrne focuses on working class life in Scotland. He is not a realist, and not just because his dialogue has rhythms and imaginative power that overheard speech can never attain. He never mistakes surface virtues and vices for realism, much less reality. He peels away illusions, takes the humdrum, day-to-day routines of ordinary folk and transforms them into material for the examination of hope, disappointment, self-delusion and all the cheating violence and cruelty that men and women perpetrate on each other.

The play depicts the resistance of the underdogs and the culture they develop to survive and maintain self-respect. That may be an unduly ponderous way of saying that the writing is endowed with wicked humour and a rich, earthy, imaginative and surreal blend of fantasy and world-weariness. The Laurel and Hardy wise-cracking of Phil and Spanky, the slab boys, is smart, disrespectful and subversive. The complaint made by Mr Curry, the manager positioned above the slab boys but beneath the factory owner, that everything in the Slab Room is going to wrack and ruin, and that ‘the colour cabinet outside’s half empty’, draws from Spanky the cheeky reply that, ‘it was half full this morning’. There is a snap, crackle, pop to the exchanges, with the lower orders winning out at this level but the hapless Curry enduring it, secure in the knowledge that while he is the butt of repartee, he is on the right side of the class divide. There are many instances of devilish, seemingly nonchalant cleverness:

Curry: Have we got any tracing paper here?

Spanky: Tracing paper?

Curry: Tracing paper

Spanky: For tracing?

Curry: Just so.

Spanky: No

Curry: What happened to the roll Mr Barton left?

Spanky: There’s no trace of it.

If the cast in this new production does not always manage to endow the exchanges with the nasty edge that is present in much of the dialogue, there is no escaping the bitterness that underlies their words and gives them the appearance of cynicism. This is more than anarchic irreverence. It is a wit drawn from wells of resentment.

Humour is a bulwark against an indifferent or oppressive hierarchy which denies the worth of the people living on the margins. For all the laughter it arouses, drollery of this sort can be as painful as scraping a fingernail on a tenement wall. And of course, it needs a victim, who is not necessarily the man in the office along the corridor. The Slab Boys is not a work of satire where, as we have been told in recent weeks, offensiveness is part of the aim. Brittle humour of the sort fired out by the boys in the paint room is often turned on the weaker party, any weaker party, not necessarily the authority figure.

It is easy for an ageing critic to allow his eyes to mist over at recollections of what Alexander Morton, Robbie Coltrane, Gerard Kelly or Billy McColl made of these parts in earlier decades, but there is an imprecise lack of command, conviction, or even strength in the production as a whole. There is not enough swagger when swagger is called for, the comic lines are too often delivered in a way which fails to elicit a response from the spectators and the bullying is downplayed. Scott Fletcher is better as Hector, the victim of the baiting from the slab boys, than the actors playing them are as the callous perpetrators of what nowadays would earn them a reprimand as bully-boys.

Jamie Quinn is at home with the part of Spanky Farrell (no relation) but Sammy Hayman loses his struggle with the central part of Phil. He seems more at ease in the more sombre second act, as Phil comes to face the prospect, denied later in the trilogy, that for all his aspirations and faltering belief in his own talents, he faces a life of pointless grind and futility. The production as a whole grows in confidence in the second part when the atmosphere is darker. The best performances come from actors playing the part of those who accept their lot and get on with the job, most notably the splendid Kathryn Howden as the tea-lady, motherly towards the put-upon Hector, flirtatious with the newly arrived Alan (Kieran Downie) and then quite magnificent in her open-hearted, woman-to-woman chat about the inadequacies of men with young Lucille (Keira Lucchesi). She switches mood gracefully as she goes, and every word she speaks can be heard, which is a skill Lucchesi has yet to acquire. James Allenby-Kirk catches perfectly the wounded pride of Plooky Jack, as he responds with hurt indignation to the humiliating jibes of the slab boys, before getting his own back, however inadequately.

There is no attempt, and no need, to update the work, although the central duo could have come from one of many deprived post codes in central Scotland today. The audience for this sell-out production enters to the strains of Doris Day belting out ‘My Secret Love’, while the poster on the back wall of the workshop is of James Dean, whose role as rebel without a cause is discussed in the play. The slab boys have the hair cut and the dress of the teddy boys, the first teenage rebels. They had plenty of causes to rebel against, but they have no sense of any wider vision of society. Of few works of theatre could it be more accurately said that the political is personal. Mr Barton, the owner of the plant, never makes an appearance, but his presence, his power and the deference he demands and receives from expendable employees at every level permeate their lives and shape their experience. Only Phil has any hope, any sense that life could be richer, that upward mobility from the workshop to a desk job is not enough in itself. For the others, class is a subjugating force. The call to see a superior ‘in my office’ is a summons to be feared. The Red Clydesiders might never have existed.

So what motivates them? There is a vein of violence, and not just verbal, in the world Byrne depicts. Of course Phil and Spanky turn their bile on Curry, on Plooky Jack, on the absent Mr Barton and on the university-educated toff, Alan (played with assurance by Kieran Downie), but the real victim is one of their own kind, poor wee Hector. Sadie the tea-lady takes him under her wing, but she only comes in and out of the Slab Room. Phil and Spanky are there all the time, and pity or fellow-feeling are not part of their armoury. They mock, demean, insult Hector. When he, like them, expresses lustful feelings for Lucille, even if his shy intentions go no further than hoping to invite her to the staff dance, they flatter and encourage him even although they know he will be rebuffed. Under the pretence of assisting him, they strip him of his pride as well as of the clothes they deem unsuitable. These are hidden away, and he is left bloodied, cold and undressed. Having decked him out in alternative, ludicrous attire, they pack him off to seek out the alluring Lucille. Malvolio’s fate was no more demeaning.

It is the toff who gets the girl, although Hector has his own triumph by winning his much desired promotion to a desk job inside the plant. The prospects for Spanky are bleak, but they are apparently equally so for Phil, who is sacked from his work and refused by the Art School, but as he walks away, shoulders hunched and head down, something in his spirit changes. He turns a cartwheel and shouts out the defiant yell that ‘Giotto was a slab boy’. Fate, at least for some, can be resisted. Phil will return later in the trilogy more successful and fulfilled. It is to be hoped that there are plans to revive the other two parts.

The Slab Boys

The Citizens, The King’s Edinburgh,
run ended.

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What’s become of Kennaway

WHEN James Kennaway died at the age of forty, he left behind five novels (two more were published posthumously), many successful screenplays, and a reputation with enough ballast to ensure that it was unlikely to sink in the fickle tides of critical opinion. His first novel, Tunes of Glory, had been a major success, and its screenplay gained him an Oscar nomination. His second book, Household Ghosts, took him three million words to get right, but when honed down to more manageable size proved that the first success hadn’t been a fluke; an astute study of sexual deceit and aristocratic decline, it is by far his best work. By the late 1960s then, Kennaway’s was a respected name, both in literary circles and in the more remunerative circles of Hollywood. Yet to speak of him now is always to acknowledge what might have been. Did his early death rob the world of future masterpieces, and if he had lived would he have provided a model for a new generation of Scottish writers, even though his own sense of national identity was one that vexed him, when he thought about it at all?

Kennaway drew liberally on his upbringing for the plots and general mise en scène of his first two books. Born to professional parents, his father a prominent Perthshire lawyer and factor for the local aristocracy, his mother a respected GP, he proceeded via boarding school (Glenalmond) to Oxford, with a two-year period of National Service in between. Tunes of Glory, a vigorous and compelling portrait of a Highland regiment struggling with the demands of peacetime, came out of his experience with the Gordon Highlanders, and in the boorish, drunken Colonel Jock Sinclair, a war hero who has risen from the ranks to take temporary command of the battalion, Kennaway created one of the great anti-heroes of post-war British fiction. With its wintry setting and the taut psychological conflict between its two main characters, Tunes of Glory expertly allegorises the decay of personal and professional ambition, and the dangers of over-reliance on a valorised past. This sense of history refusing to relinquish its grip animates his second and most successful novel, Household Ghosts, a near-gothic portrait of a minor aristocratic Perthshire family tainted by the hint of past scandal.

Structurally, with its set-piece scenes and strong characterisation, Tunes of Glory seems almost designed for adaptation into a screenplay. Household Ghosts is similarly cinematic, its scenes proceeding almost entirely through dialogue. With the stylistic pattern of his work reinforced by his increasing demand as a screenwriter, Household Ghosts also introduced the theme of the fraught triangular relationship that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career, and that dominates the two novels reissued here.

Kennaway had initially written The Mind Benders as a screenplay, and it was made into a moderately effective thriller with Dirk Bogarde in the starring role. Due to be novelised by a hack writer to cash in on the film’s release, Kennaway instead decided to do the job himself, fleshing out a story of Cold War espionage and psychological experiment into a study of the torments of sexual jealousy. The novel follows intelligence officer Major ‘Ramrod’ Hall as he investigates the apparent defection of a high-placed scientist, Professor Sharpey. When Sharpey commits suicide, Hall’s investigations lead him to the dead scientist’s colleagues, who are carrying out a series of experiments in sensory deprivation. Dr Harry Longman, in an attempt to prove that Sharpey was no traitor and had instead been unhinged by his work, volunteers to undergo the procedure in the laboratory’s isolation tank himself. When he emerges, it becomes clear that he has been profoundly altered, and that his suspension in the tank has turned him into ‘a kind of echo of a man’. His degradation of his wife Oonagh becomes a source of further torment for his colleague Jack Tate, who has fallen in love with her.

Despite the claims made for the book in Paul Gallagher’s generous introduction, it’s hard to find much merit in The Mind Benders. In frequently clumsy prose (‘They sat, this evening as every evening before, feeling that they had never watched the sky before’) Kennaway’s narrative never fulfils the potential of its original premise. What promises to be a transgressive exploration of consciousness, a phenomenon Kennaway suggests is wholly contingent on the anchor of the physical senses, becomes instead a brisk and melodramatic potboiler, further marred by an unconvincingly redemptive ending that, although clearly demanded by the conventions of mainstream cinema at the time, is awkwardly transposed into the novelisation. In Professor Sharpey’s notes, the isolation tank experiments are meant to unlock ‘the physics of the soul’. In Longman’s case, all they seem to do is make him act like a bit of a shit to his wife, although perhaps this was suitably eye-opening in 1963. Imagine for a moment what Kennaway’s near-contemporary JG Ballard would have made of the idea, and you realise how far he has missed the mark.

If The Mind Benders is a demonstrably minor work, The Cost of Living Like This is far more substantial. Published the year after Kennaway died, it follows Julian, an eminent economist dying of cancer, as he tries to reconvene his earlier affair with the beautiful and independent Sally Cohen, a 17 year-old office junior training to be a professional swimmer. Julian’s wife Christobel, whose infidelities match her husband’s, is determined not to give him up without a fight, and when the trio’s overwrought, drunken ménage decamps to Glasgow, their relationship erupts just as Julian’s illness enters its terminal phase. In a broken, fragmented narrative that reflects Julian’s own physical agony, the novel is a more controlled and successful attempt to define the nature of sexual jealousy than Kennaway’s previous two books, The Bells of Shoreditch and Some Gorgeous Accident, which in many respects follow a similar pattern. Julian’s oddly complicit relationship with his disease is portrayed with queasy skill; ‘the crab’, as he calls it, ‘lying asleep amongst the seaweed of my bowels’. In the unlikely figure of Mozart Anderson, a part-time football referee Christabel meets in Glasgow, the novel has its philosophical centre, a confessional figure who can comment on the self-deceptions of the other characters. ‘We’ve locked ourselves in duologues,’ he says at one point, ‘in boxes. Maybe that’s the sin.’ For Kennaway the monogamous relationship is a deadening trap, but the attempt to break out of it is no real source of freedom either.

The Cost of Living Like This is a tough, elegiac piece of work, and the ménage à trois was a scenario that obviously compelled Kennaway’s imagination. It gave him access to the murky compromises of the emotions, and helped him explore the hypocrisies at the heart of the 1960s. It was a scenario he had even played out himself, in an improbable relationship with his wife Susan and the writer David Cornwell, better known by his pseudonym John Le Carré. (Le Carré’s novel The Naïve and Sentimental Lover is a portrait of this period.) Kennaway never passes authorial judgement on his characters, and this absence of a moralising tone gives his work a refreshingly adult flavour, a sense of experience hard-won and seriously interpreted. In other respects though, he was a typical writer of his generation, particularly in his attitudes towards women. While Mary Ferguson in Household Ghosts is proudly self-aware even in her worst moments, Kennaway’s later female characters can often seem like fantasy figures. There’s no other way to explain why all it takes to lure the vivacious and liberated Sally Cohen back to the middle-aged, cancer-ridden Julian is a savage beating and an attempted rape, or why the Glasgwegian socialist Stella Vass finds it so difficult to tear herself away from the amoral banker Sarson in The Bells of Shoreditch. In The Mind Benders, even after Longman has been transformed into a cruel and heartless brute, Oonagh still martyrs herself to his every barbarity.

If Kennaway is to be seen in any way as a model for other Scottish writers then perhaps it’s as someone who had liberated himself from the need to question his nationality, or his position within its culture. Certainly, Scottish nationalism gets short shrift in The Cost of Living Like This. Matthew Mathieson, the SNP supporter who owns the hotel Sally and Julian stay in when they reach Glasgow, is a superb caricature, smug and self-righteous, and also peculiarly noble: ‘He had attacked Julian for being English; had quoted bogus figures in support of an independent Scotland; then towards the end of the journey he had openly confessed that he was only a Scottish Nationalist because he hated all the other parties.’

Perhaps it was only from this deracinated and culturally self-sufficient position that Kennaway felt free to turn his attention towards larger ideas, and to explore in his fiction more delinquent modes of living. It is ironic then that his two most ‘Scottish’ novels, Tunes of Glory and Household Ghosts, remain his unimpeachable classics, while the remainder of his work, although more personal and formally experimental, have to be considered as honourable failures. With rediscoveries in the 1980s and the early 2000s though, it might be asked if a reappraisal of Kennaway’s work is a perennial task.

The Mind Benders 

by James Kennaway 

Valancourt Books, 9781941147276, £9.99, PP145

The Cost of Living Like This 

by James Kennaway 

Valancourt Books, 9781941147283, £9.99, PP142

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Two Rooms of My Own

VIRGINIA Woolf said famously that in order to write a woman needs an annual income of £500 (done) and ‘a room of one’s own.’ So there’s no excuse. I’ve got two rooms of my own, stacked on top of each other; half a house, in fact, overhanging the gorge of the Licenza river and the cascading terracotta tiles of the centro storico. Like its neighbours this medieval doll’s house is glued to the rock of the Orsini castle, where laundered bedlinen dries on washing lines beneath the piano nobile.

Today Licenza’s historic centre compromises its antiquity, its six centuries of evolution from defensive borgo to peaceful paese. Skeins of power cables link the roofs; gravity-defying extensions, kitchens, bathrooms, balconies, stud the walls like limpets; TV satellite dishes offer target practice for the ghosts of crossbow archers and siege engineers. Yet the essence of the little hill town endures. Its ashen limestone, its basalt cobbles, its cracks and crevices crammed with wild herbs and flowers and its timeless mountain views co-exist with the digital age. Up to a point. Broadband hasn’t reached its highest houses, which means I stroll downhill with my laptop to go online beneath a yellow parasol at the Bar della Piazza. Sunshine in cyberspace.

Licenza’s hub is the piazza, five minutes’ walk down Via Orazio Flacco, a street named for its local celebrity, who was once a neighbour. Orazio Flacco – Quintus Horatius Flaccus to Latin scholars or plain Horace to his English translators – is a big cheese in these parts. This obscure valley 40 kilometres from Rome has literary history. Over 2000 years ago the pre-eminent poet of the Augustan Age was gifted a small country estate by his patron, Maecenas, the emperor’s civic lieutenant. Horace, in his writings, called it ‘my little Sabine farm’. Its centre piece was a handsome villa whose foundations have been recovered by diligent archaeology.

Orazio’s villa has one of the prettiest sites in the province of Lazio. I can see its cypresses and pines from my windows. Even with two rooms of my own the urge to postpone the neurotic business of writing is ever-present, making it utter joy to wash the windows. The walk to Villa d’Orazio beckons, one of my favourites among the waymarked paths of the Lucretili Mountains. It begins at the only door of my lofty half-house, navigates the stepped conduit of Via delle Piagge (‘street of the slopes’, like every other street in town ) and descends to the valley bottom. Here the humble waters of the Licenza river pursue their journey from the Apennines to the Aniene, a Tiber tributary, and eventually to Rome.

Soon I’m climbing again through groves of massive chestnut trees, past the diamond-shaped bricks of Villa d’Orazio, past Fonte Bandusia and onto the track to Roccagiovane, whose castle and campanile I can also see from my windows. Waiting under more chestnut trees – and I usually share this walk with friends or family – is lunch at La Castagneta: homemade pasta with truffle sauce, lamb, pork or rabbit. They are hefty meat eaters in these hills, which the livestock share with boar and wolves.

There are other distractions. So how much writing actually gets done in Licenza, where the half-house has become a creative retreat by default? We took possession of it eight years ago but my husband, a city man, soon exhausted his appetite for hilltop life in rural Italy, put the property in my name, handed over the paperwork and the responsibility and said he’d meet me in Rome. Since then I’ve become dangerously fond of spending time there on my own, wrapping up the hours of each simplified day into lightweight parcels labelled Work, Recreation and Social Activity.

In the upper room the day begins on reveille from the lazy buglers of the Licenza valley, where even the cocks don’t wake up until the sun has cleared the hills. Its first beams are my signal to negotiate the open staircase to the lower room, bearing in mind it could be a while before someone raised the alarm if I tripped and cracked my skull on the tiled floor. I switch on my laptop, open the parcel called Work, read the last paragraph I wrote, fetch the novel I’m reading and make a pot of tea; but not before leaning out of the window to taste the morning and consume a view which changes only with the seasons. By early April the swifts and swallows have arrived, by late September the house martins are last to leave, and I am so high on the castle rock that all these migrants fly beneath me.

At the frosted glass door which opens onto my improvised terrace I can see the shadow of a diminutive lion couchant. I open the parcel labelled Social Activity. Spook wants his breakfast. Spook is a big, handsome, ghost-grey tomcat who is, for the time being, last of the feline dynasty whose social dynamics I’ve been studying for eight years. I could write a book about the Piagge pride and some day might do so. I’ve been taking notes (filed in the parcel Work) since the day that plain, plaintive Gypsy first came to my door soliciting affection as much as food.

Italian cats eat pasta. The signora next door made an extra portion every night and left it out for the Piagge pride, who survived longer than most feral cats on scavenging, hunting and spaghetti carbonara. They were a matriarchal clan headed up by Seraphina, an elegant, grey and white queen with a chewed ear who fearlessly defended her extended family and even brought them meals. I once saw her carry a large sausage up the street and present it to Gypsy and her latest litter – three tortoiseshell kits as heartmeltingly pretty as their mother was plain.

One by one, without veterinary care and enough protein, the Piagge pride has succumbed to malnutrition, bad weather and disease. Three winters ago there were persistent blizzards in the Lucretili hills – unusual but not unknown – and when I returned in the spring there was no sign of Seraphina, and no Gypsy sprinting to my door as soon as I opened the shutters. The family was reduced to two skinny granddaughters, neither in good shape, and now they are gone, too; although the dynastic genes probably survive in the tortoiseshell toms I see around town, as the young males – just like their relatives in a lion pride – were expelled when they reached adolescence.

But Spook represents the future. One of the grey litter from four years back, he has returned to claim his maternal legacy – the hand-outs of Via delle Piagge. He is strong, healthy and well-socialised; perhaps he even has an infant memory of me and the paper plates on my doorstep, and I don’t doubt he is spreading the seed of a restored dynasty.

Decision time: do I make my own breakfast or go down to the piazza café for cappuccino and cornetti, entertaining the old men and women who know my face, who greet me courteously but for whom I remain a novelty and enigma? In Rome a woman sitting alone at a café would pass unnoticed. In Licenza no-one does anything alone because everyone knows everyone. An action as simple as crossing the street is a collective performance, as neighbours and shopkeepers exchange amplified greetings with passers-by. From the deep peace of via delle Piagge, where at night the only sounds are the liquid chords of the River Licenza and the woodland nightingales, I descend into the piazza as a tide of voices, like pebbles rolled by waves, rises to meet me.

Sometimes I open the parcel called Work in the Café della Piazza. Perhaps I shall write a book about the daily minutiae of its theatre, like the French writer Georges Perec, who over three days in 1974 sat at a café in Place Saint-Sulpice recording everything that passed before his line of vision. He described the exercise as a quest for the ‘infra-ordinary’, the humdrum, ‘what happens when nothing happens.’ He got 55 paperback pages out of his An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Hmmm. I could call my own attempt something like The Everyday Philosophers of Piazza della Liberta. But for now it’s time to open the parcel labelled Recreation, which means I shall take an hour’s walk to the hide near Civitella and try to spot the pair of eagles who nest on Monte Pellecchia.

So here’s the thing. The creative retreat is underused. It lies empty for months, unloved within its venerable walls but not neglected. My good friend Geraldine keeps an eye on it, and the sweet mountain air ventilates the rooms through an open window too small to admit even baby burglars, with a screen to block the bugs. But for much of the year, frosty or sunlit or sluiced with rain, the half-house feels the absence of human warmth – and human creativity; even the presence of this scribbler of notes and tapper of keyboards with the short attention span, who puts piazza life, dreamy birdwatching, lunch at La Castagneta and the feeding of cats before art.

Perhaps it wishes its owner was a painter who would at least leave the smell of oils behind; or an academic with a thesis to complete and a deadline to meet; anyone more committed than this half-hearted hack who managed to complete a book in Licenza only because it was January and the days were short and cold.

Two rooms of my own? If you meet the criteria and present the references they are yours for a trial run and a peppercorn rent on one condition: the cats get fed. Proper cat food, not pasta.

Julie Davidson, who completed her book Looking for Mrs Livingstone in her two rooms in Licenza, welcomes enquiries about the property and may be contacted at:

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Where the Wild Things Are

THREE years ago, on a bright cold morning in May, I walked out into the Lewis moor for a day at the peats. I was meeting islanders who had dug each summer for years, had grown up with the annual toil, had grown to love it, and who were able to teach me some of the Gaelic peat-words which had come down from their distant forefathers. The slabs of peat, chocolatey when first cut, were fàds, and inside were rusty fibres, known as calcas, which could be smoked, in a fagless emergency, in lieu of tobacco. The fàds, stacked on the bank, are known as rùdhan. Later, I spoke to the artist Anne Campbell. She told me that, following the example of her late father, she always walks barefoot when going to dig peat, and she gave me a glossary of moorland terms which she had collected, among them the word ‘èit’ which has a beautifully precise meaning – the placing of quartz stones in moorland streams so that they sparkle in the moonlight and attract salmon.

That word, and Anne Campbell herself, both feature in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, a book concerned with landscape and language, and how the latter can illuminate the former and draw us to it, like that piece of quartz glowing moonlit, moorlit in a burn. Landmarks is, in Macfarlane’s phrases, a ‘word-hoard’ and a partial ‘Terra Britannica’. He has travelled Britain collecting local words for particular aspects of the landscape, in the manner of the blues field recordists of old, and presents them here, giving over around a third of his pages to a glossary which goes from ‘alpenglow’ (a mountaineering term for sunlight on summits) to ‘zwer’ (the whizzing sound made by a covey of partridges as they break cover) and contains around 2,000 other poetic and fascinating words, many of them in Scots and Gaelic. There are nine glossaries – Flatlands, Woodlands, Coastlands etc – and these sections in particular would benefit from an audiobook version, voiced by local speakers, so we can better appreciate the beauty of the words.

Their beauty is important. Macfarlane is not collecting for its own sake, but in the hope that greater familiarity with the language of nature will lead us to a greater intimacy with the natural world. He quotes a 2012 National Trust report that between 1970 and 2010, the area in which British children were allowed to play unsupervised had shrunk by 90 per cent. ‘Nine out of ten children can identify a Dalek,’ Macfarlane writes, ‘three out of ten a magpie.’ He notes, too, that the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had deleted several words felt to be no longer relevant to the lives of children, among them bluebell, cygnet and mistletoe, their places taken by blog, chatroom and MP3 player. Macfarlane’s indignation at this is neither simple nostalgia nor horrified aestheticism. He regards the withering of our lexicon as both a counterpart and an exacerbating factor in environmental destruction: ‘Language deficit leads to attention deficit.’ If we do not have the words for things, we care about them a little less. If we do have the words, and if those words are themselves beautiful, even magical, then we may care a good deal more. It is Macfarlane’s mission to make us care, to equip us with the words to make us fall back in love with the land.

Is this fanciful? Perhaps not. He tells the story of the 2004 attempt by the British Energy and the engineering company AMEC to build a wind farm of 181 turbines on Lewis’s Barvas Moor, claiming that the scheme’s eventual rejection by the Scottish Government on environmental grounds was a victory for local campaigners, among them Anne Campbell, who had begun to compile the moorland glossary as a counter to those arguing that the peatlands were simply a dead wilderness. To make the moor seem valuable, it was first necessary to make it seem wonderful, and to do so by listing those words and stories which spoke of its long relationship with humankind.

What is true of the Barvas Moor is true of the rest of our landscape – and therefore while Landmarks is ‘a celebration and defence’ of language, it is also a shield and lance raised by a champion of the land. Its moral thrust is explicit in a way that had hitherto only been implied in Macfarlane’s previous books, but it is part of a strong tendency in his work. When he says, of the author Barry Lopez, ‘while writing about landscape often begins in the aesthetic, it must always tend to the ethical’, he could be discussing his own motivations. Macfarlane’s writing may, on rare occasion, have a touch of the questing vole passing feather-footed through the plashy fen, but only because he desires, through his elevated style, to ensure safe passage for the creature and richer future for all of us. If there is hope, he seems to say, it lies with the voles.

Since his 2003 book Mountains Of The Mind, Macfarlane has been a leading exponent of what an issue of Granta dubbed the ‘New Nature Writing’. His approach combines travelogue, memoir, science, history and literary criticism, all of it stewed together in lovely moreish prose. His writing is addictive but also functions as a gateway drug to other writers. His 2007 book, The Wild Places, for instance, included the story of WH Murray, the Scottish mountaineer, who in 1942 was taken prisoner by Rommel’s Panzer Division and spent years of starved captivity writing about Scotland’s mountains on scavenged sheets of toilet paper. Macfarlane’s next book, The Old Ways, a meditation on walking, was haunted by the restless spirit of Edward Thomas, the poet and essayist who was killed on Easter Monday 1917, aged 39, at the Battle of Arras.

Landmarks is an intensification of Macfarlane’s desire to pay tribute to the influence of others. It is, he writes, ‘a field guide to literature’ – an exploration of the lives and works of those writers whose writing taught him not only how to write about the natural world, but also how to see it properly in the first place. Certain books, he argues, are landmarks in our lives; they help us find our bearings in the world, our path through it, in much the same way as a particular summit or constellation might orient us on a moor.

The guiding stars of Landmarks include Nan Shepherd, the novelist and Cairngorms hill-walker who died in 1981; that particular chapter is a reworking and expansion of Macfarlane’s introduction to Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, reissued by Canongate in 2011. The book, Macfarlane notes, is full of imagery of weaving and interconnection – pine roots twisted like snakes, the ‘interlaced’ antlers of rutting stags – and he himself appears to have a deep desire to intertwine his work with that of earlier writers.

Macfarlane seems drawn, in particular, to those who seem to have struggled with depressive tendencies and for whom immersion in nature is a consolation. Edward Thomas, walking the South Downs in an attempt to escape the ‘crushing attacks of gloom and wretchedness’ that dogged him. Richard Skelton, the musician and writer with whom, in Landmarks, Macfarlane explores an unsettling tunnel in an abandoned quarry; Skelton, a ‘haunted man … drawn to haunted places’, began to walk and explore the West Pennine Moors in the aftermath of his wife’s death. JA Baker, author of The Peregrine (1967), whose obsessive personal identification with that bird, Macfarlane believes, grew out of his suffering from the painful chronic disease ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis, grew out of a desire to leave his renegade body and fly free.

There is an answering sadness deep in Macfarlane’s writing. Every sentence carries a sigh. It’s that same sadness one feels at times in Glencoe or in the vastness of Sutherland, some mix of human absence and the presence of too much tragic history, and one wonders whether Macfarlane is drawn to these places by feelings of emotional kinship or whether the mood has simply got inside him over the years. Either way, he seems to understand it all too well and writes about it brilliantly. Melancholy, he says, ‘differs from grief in its chronic nature: it is an ache not a wound, it lies deeper down, is longer lasting, is lived with rather than died of. We might perhaps imagine melancholy hydrologically, as a kind of groundwater – seeping darkly onwards, occasionally surfacing as depression or anguish’.

An elegiac quality, a keening note, is characteristic of Macfarlane’s work. He can at times seem like an obituarist disguised as a naturalist. In The Wild Places he noted that between 1930 and 1990, over half of England’s ancient woodland had been cleared, or replaced by conifer plantation. In Landmarks he tells us that in half a century, Britain has lost more than 44 million breeding birds, fifty sparrows an hour for fifty years. Yet this is not an unhopeful book. Macfarlane says of the Victorian essayist and novelist Richard Jefferies that his writing functioned ‘as what might now be called a consciousness-raising exercise – an attempt to bring urbanites and suburbanites to a fresh awareness of natural beauty’. The same could be said of Macfarlane. He does not regard himself as being in the business of writing elegies; rather he is a poet-warrior of sorts, writing against humankind’s relentless land-taming advance, beating ploughshares into swords.

A father of two, Macfarlane concludes the main part of Landmarks with a chapter on what he calls ‘Childish’ – the language spoken by children, in which we were all fluent once upon a time. Children, he feels, perceive nature as we ought to see it – a place of possibilities, an imaginative and wondrous realm full of dens and doorways and stories, where a bluebell, whether in the dictionary or not, will always be more enchanting than a blog. He hears a child make up the word ‘honeyfurs’ for the soft seed-heads of wild grass and is moved. That is why the tenth and final glossary in this book has been left blank: it is for the words yet to come, coined by people yet to come, and the emptiness of those pages is an act of faith by a man whose feeling of profound emotional and intellectual companionship with those who came before him will, no doubt, be matched by writers and readers and walkers of the future who look back on Macfarlane’s tenderly attentive work and are inspired to set out on new paths of their own.


Robert Macfarlane

Hamish Hamilton, £20, ISBN 9780241146538

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The SRB Interview: Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan was born in Glasgow in 1968, and grew up in Ayrshire. His writing, both fictional and non-fictional, has always been concerned with what he has described as ‘selfhood and its precariousness’. The Missing (1995), his first book, is a memoir and investigation of missing persons and their effect on the consciousness of the country. Our Fathers (1999) is a poetic account of a man’s attempt to come to terms with the political and emotional values of his grandfather, a social housing pioneer in Glasgow. In 2003 he published Personality, in which the consequences of fame unfold for a young woman in the entertainment industry. His 2010 novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe returned to fame but saw him depart from the west of Scotland and travel across the Atlantic. Maf the Dog It is a sad, witty and comic tale of the last years of Marilyn Monroe’s life written from the perspective of a Maltese Terrier gifted to her by Frank Sinatra and dubbed Mafia Honey. In between appeared Be Near Me (2006), about a priest attempting to balance his emotional and intellectual loyalties whilst living in an unforgiving community.

A notable essayist, he is editor at large at the London Review of Books, in which he recently wrote an essay entitled ‘The Two Lives of Ronald Pinn’, a moral examination of how the light and dark pockets of the world wide web can shape a person’s life. His latest novel, The Illuminations, captures the story of an elderly lady and former professional photographer, Anne Quirk, and follows her grandson Captain Luke Campbell of the Royal Western Fusiliers. When Luke returns disillusioned from Afghanistan he sets about reconciling his heart and mind as Anne’s dementia starts to release fragments of her real and imagined past.

Nick Major met O’Hagan in London on a refreshingly cold and crisp day. In the sitting room of O’Hagan’s home clear light shone through the windows between the white shutters. Among the numerous books on the shelves was a faded collection of the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson. On the wall above the fireplace a drawing of a brilliant Macaw, red and yellow, stared down at them with imperious eyes. O’Hagan was dressed in blue jeans and a thin blue jumper. One legged tucked under the other, he leaned forward and stared in hard concentration. He spoke slowly and thoughtfully, pausing to inhale deeply from a cigarette or tap ash into a golden flower ornament balanced on a glass coffee table. The smoke curled up from his fingers and around his body so that he seemed to be perpetually emerging out of a strange mist.

Scottish Review of Books: You live in London but most of your books, including The Illuminations, take the West of Scotland as their territory. Why do you keep returning to that particular place?

Andrew O’Hagan: Every writer’s memory and imagination has a landscape, and instinct draws you back there, sometimes to the same house, like a swallow in summer. When I was a young reader I remember wondering why Robert Louis Stevenson sat in the mangrove swamps of Samoa writing about a rainy day in Edinburgh. But now I understand.

Were there any writers who gave you a deeper understanding of
that landscape?

I grew up doused in Robert Burns and the novelist John Galt. He’s not forgotten, Galt, in fact he’s on his way back. He was Coleridge’s favourite novelist, above Scott, above many of his English contemporaries. He was born in Greenock but grew up in Irvine, which was next to the town where I spent my childhood. His best novels – Annals of the Parish, The Ayrshire Legatees, The Provost – are set in a town which is an obvious double of Irvine. The local colour, the political intrigue, the small town habits, the portraiture, had such an influence on me when I was young. I couldn’t believe a writer could burnish up a scene so the faces actually glowed and the talk just sang. That was John Galt to me. He understood small town Scottish life at the beginning of the nineteenth century in a way that is unsurpassed. He’d a collective title for all his books set there. He called them ‘Tales of the West’, and, in however modest a way, I wanted to create my own little Tales of the West. And that’s what I think my novels set in and around Ayrshire are.

How did you discover Galt?

There was a statue in Irvine and I used to walk passed it as a kid. I would often look at this iron-clad individual and think: how do you get to be him? And my mother would just tug me by the hand and walk on. If you grew up in a place where there wasn’t a big focus on literature or the imagination as a professional occupation, then you would naturally turn to those local authors, and he was the best of the novelists. Burns was a great presence too, though. Just the talent Burns had for capturing local speech and gaiety. I can still hear those rhythms when I talk to people in Ayrshire today. They travelled through to the inner ear and remained there.

Is it difficult to capture those rhythms of speech in your books, or is it just a case of turning to Burns?

There’s a combination of influences. One of them becomes your own writing eventually. You are trained by your attempts to get it right. For me, I was more interested in trying to get the rhythms and the inflection of a certain kind of Scottish speech into an English sentence, ‘a strong Scots accent of the mind’, as James Boswell once described it.

Did you leave Ayrshire to work at the London Review of Books?

No, I came to London the day after I graduated. I think I had sixty quid — and my brother gave me another £200 — and I caught the bus from Buchanan Street in Glasgow. I got a job working for an organisation based in Marylebone called St. Dunstan’s, which was the charity organisation for the war blinded, and I worked with these old, still-surviving veterans of the First and Second World wars.

The job that appears in Personality?

Yes, that’s from life. Michael’s job in Personality is a direct steal from myself. It was an amazing job because, in some obvious ways, it was absurd. I was writing captions and copy for a little magazine that only I could see. But the more important part was that I’d go with these blind ex-servicemen on day outings. I used to take them to the South Downs and be their ‘eyes’— quite good training for a writer, actually. In a sense I became an adult doing that job. Some of the men were in their nineties. Their last vision was the trenches at Loos, and for me, aged twenty-one, it was mind-blowing. I sat with them on the grass at Beachy Head with the sound of the waves not far distant, and with that sense of Europe over there. I was moved and transported by them, their sense of history, and their embodiment of a notion of courage and dedication.

They taught you about life lived in brutal reality?

Yeah, because it was flesh and blood, and the loss thereof. It reverberates to this day —the shrinking distance between youth and old age. I must say: to have that lesson in your youth is priceless. Their sense of witness transformed my sense of what you might do as a writer.

You started writing journalism for the London Review of Books in the early 1990s. Why do you think journals like that are important for our culture? 

I’m sure the people don’t mean it, but modern political discourse and advertising, public relations and the new tabloid media, have a strange effect on the culture — they degrade the language, coarsen the mind, and insult the public’s intelligence. So you have to rely on other things, including good, intelligent journals, to fight back — to fight back with style, thoughtfulness, plurality, tolerance, and grace. A robust culture can’t do without those important journals. That’s something Scotland taught the world, and I’ve been a fan of them all my adult life.

You once interviewed Norman Mailer for the Paris Review. What did you learn from Mailer as a person and a writer?

I just loved Norman. He got behind my work and made me tougher on myself. I mean, he would write these letters in which he’d give you a line for the cover of your book, but, in the rest of the letter, the bigger part, he’d be advising you to cut deeper and strike harder and go further as a writer. He thought like a boxer and he had a boxer’s sense of risk and technique. A real Spartan sense of endurance. He knew the industry could make writers soft and silly — you know, just hungry for recognition, or sensitive about reviews, or too easily tempted into competition with other writers, when the real task was to enter your times and write your heart out and not to settle for having the correct opinions but to imagine what is evil. And Norman had arrived at many of these truths late, via experience, via bad times, via too much vanity, and he had a sense of honour about what he’d learned in battle.

Mailer once wrote: ‘society, which is necessary to enable man to grow, is also the prison whose walls he must perpetually enlarge… it is the artist, embodying the most noble faculty
of man – his urge to rebel – who
is forever enlarging the walls’.
Do you think, like Mailer, that the artist should have a social purpose, or should they simply stay true to their imagination? 

That’s Mailer in his Dostoevskian mode — I’m not sure I agree. I don’t feel that society is a prison and I don’t share Norman’s romance of the rebel. I think his existential hero-worship, to be honest, was an aspect of his own artistic frustration, something that emerged for Norman after a too-early success. But it emerged for a lot of novelists in American after World War II, having to live with the truth of the Holocaust and the threat of the Bomb. But your question’s an important one: writers should participate in their society if they can, of course, but that is never in the end where a good writer is at his best. We should do our bit, but where politicians deal in policy, writers deal in dreams. That’s why artists shouldn’t team up with politicians. It’s a category error: you’re not dealing in the same language. You may seem to, for a season, a heady evening, or a campaign. But you are on your own. ‘Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie,’ said Italo Calvino. And, you know, politicians don’t.

You ghost wrote Julian Assange’s autobiography. What was it like to work so closely with hackers and experience their culture?

What I tried to do was help him write his book. I tried because he asked me to, and because his organisation, to my mind, was doing crucial work. Jamie Byng [of Canongate] and I wanted to give more power to Assange’s elbow, but power meant something different to him, and it was like dealing with someone having a nervous breakdown. After he’d fallen out with everybody, I sat with him a few times in the Equadorian Embassy in London, and it was clear he could only understand the world in terms of its loyalty to him. Many of the hackers I’ve met are funny, joyous, late-night idealists, people who want to point up corruption and fight the good fight, but I have to admit that many of them are not what my mother would call people-people.

Do you find the transition from
non-fiction to fiction an easy line
to cross?

It has always seemed natural to me to treat the borders between fiction and non-fiction as being cross-able. Those borders are unstable; they are porous. Modern life teaches you that before you are 15 years old. People’s ‘life stories’ seem invented on Facebook — the company estimates that there are over 65 million fake accounts — and news values, the whole of reality indeed, appears subject to fiction-energy nowadays. Any writer interested in the texture of reality is constantly taking account of that, if not taking the exact measure of it. I’d add that, for me, there is no hierarchy of forms: if you seek to write well you’ll seek to write everything well, and I’ve found the essays I’ve produced, for what it’s worth, took every single thing I’ve got. For me, in whatever category of prose writing, it will always be about the sentences.

So what do you think makes
a good sentence?

God, if I knew that I would trademark it and sell it to creative writing students all over the world. I think you have to trust some sense of exactitude and some sense of rightness that is deeply personal. It’s like you saying to me: what is a strong morality? It’s too big a question. But I’ll tell you one thing I do know, and you know it too, which is that when you walk down the street you don’t say: what do I do now to be a moral being? You trust to some instinctual sense of what is the right thing to do. Believe me, for some of us, that’s just what writing is. It’s an issue of technique, but I believe there’s a lot of technique in being a moral person as well. The years of writing a novel is about going back again and again to judge the weight and measure of the sentences, and see how they convey with exactitude what is perfect for the scene or the book.

Why do you feel it is important as a writer to go outside and ‘test the weatherproof nature of one’s style’?

Hemingway was a man with vast resources when it came to understanding the human predicament, but he sure as hell couldn’t have written well just by mulling things over at a farmhouse-table in Michigan. He had to go to Paris. He had to go to Spain. He needed wives and bullfights and the snows of Kilimanjaro. He needed near-death experiences on a regular basis. He had reportorial energy and it went into everything. Some writers have no choice but to marry their private concerns to something seemingly objective, something they went out and found that wasn’t obvious to anyone else. If you find that thing by walking through the chambers of your own heart, good enough. But many of us discovered that we became better writers by sailing down a perpetual Congo.

In a recent article for the LRB,
‘The Lives of Ronald Pinn’, you took a leaf out of the Metropolitan Police’s book and constructed
an entire identity from a name
on a gravestone. Ronald Pinn eventually had an address, passport, NI number, and was starting to delve down into the
dark web. Was it difficult to stop creating this person’s life? 

Yes. Very difficult. He’s a man of his times. I could have gone on and on giving Ronnie Pinn more legitimacy and exposing him to more real-life drama. But it was an ethical minefield. There was an element of the gothic horror story in that essay, but I didn’t want the invented man to become criminally gratuitous, just performing illegal acts for the sake of it. I started with a moral imperative, to show what the police had done, and what technology allows, and after that I just wanted to return it to the first principle, that a human being, the real Ronald Pinn, had lived and been loved by his family. That’s why I went to see his mother at the end of the piece. I wanted to leave the reader to ponder a principal of human value.

What do you think the effect of the internet will be on the novel as an art form?

I might be wrong about this, but the internet could be the best thing to happen to the novel since the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly, people live in instant proximity to deep resources of words and images, in a way that was hitherto unimaginable. One of the reasons the novel as a form first succeeded was that it put people in touch with other lives, and the Internet may turn out to be just that — a vast novel, written by all the people on the planet who have access to a machine. But that could be wishful thinking. There are lots of unhappy people out there who would seek permanently to darken our minds. The great struggle will be to keep the Internet free of both surveillance and malice, and to make it the great, imaginative tool that it should be.

When the fictional starts to colonize reality it does create extreme difficulties for individuals and society though doesn’t it? In your new novel, The Illuminations, many of the soldiers in the British Army see combat as another, higher level in a video game. 

Yes indeed. We could talk about delusion. I remember feeling shocked when I discovered that military manufacturers had changed the controls in their tanks to make them more like the typical video console. Think about that, because it has grave implications for the treatment of life and death. In preparing The Illuminations, I spoke to young soldiers who wanted a high strike rate, and, when it came down to it, they weren’t that fussed whether they achieved it playing Call of Duty 4 or by serving in Helmand Province. They would deplore me saying that: they insist they know the difference. But I want to argue that there has been a change,not only in the moral consciousness of soldiers, but of ordinary people, who are encouraged by technology to feel divorced from responsibility. I think there should be Reality classes in schools — a bit Don De’Lillo: ‘What are you doing this morning, son?’ ‘Oh, I’ve got double Reality, then Maths’ — but yes, a famous person on the telly is not a cartoon, but a breathing, thinking human. A classroom filled with Pakistani children is not a digital figment, but a set of promising lives, animated with laughter, memory, hope and love. And high in the sky, the drones aren’t thinking, because somebody divorced from the ecology of reality is working it with a gear-stick in Washington. Our tendency is to forget the deep reality beyond our flashing screens. Technology is great, and life is easier for many of us, but we can’t lose the human heart.

At the end of The Illuminations Captain Luke Campbell gives away his video games, and in the bottom of the bag is a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Novels and video games are shored up against one another in the novel. Books, one feels, come out on top. Why is this?

Because the book is the best of our inventions. It carries one mind into another. All art does that and I love each form in itself, but the book wins because it is ultimately humanising and democratic. The novel, for instance, that ignites the deeper parts of your imagination so that you can better see the world. I continue to believe in technology and to burnish very high hopes for it, but the sacred tool is the pencil. The scene you mention stands at the end of a long journey for Captain Campbell, but the truth of it is embedded in all the great reading of my youth, in Muriel Spark and Graham Greene, in Saul Bellow and Wallace Stevens, the idea that we must keep faith with the human case, whilst allowing our sense of the miraculous to be wide open.

Some of your characters in previous novels – Maf the Dog, Maria Tambini in Personality and Hugh Bawn in Our Fathers – are lifted from real life. Are any of the characters in
The Illuminations modeled on
real people?

Anne Quirk, the elderly lady at the book’s centre, was inspired by a wonderful Scottish-Canadian photographer called Margaret Watkins, who died in 1969. She was a genius who worked in New York during the early, golden period of photography. I gave Anne her background, her return to Glasgow for family reasons, and the stalling of her career — the rest was the small brushwork of invention. Let me see. There’s a scattering of myself among the boys fighting in Afghanistan, but the surprise for me was that I needed no real model for most of the people in the book. They just arrived in my head as people with loves and griefs and fears intact. Sometimes, like that, characters just come from your imagination to stake their claim on the page. You can see them, you can hear them, and my God you can almost touch them.

How did you discover
Margaret Watkins?

There’s a lovely man called Joe Mulholland who runs the Hidden Lane gallery on Argyle Street, Glasgow. He wrote an article for a photography magazine where he described a friendship he had with a neighbour at the end of the sixties, an elderly lady who turned out to be Margaret Watkins. I went from there to Hamilton University in Canada to look at her papers. I was thinking about this platoon of young soldiers in Helmand, and then I realized that the story of this photographer had attached itself to another story in my mind about an elderly lady I knew who had dementia and had seen a rabbit in the snow. I woke up one night and I could see my main character, Anne, at the window, and on the other side I could see the boy in the platoon, Luke, and in that vision they were part of the same family and The Illuminations was formed.

Do you normally have that moment of realization when writing a novel?

The material for a novel lives inside you, but it is tinder and it needs a spark. There have always been elderly women in my life, and I’ve watched people with dementia. I’ve spent a lot of time with soldiers who have served in Iraq, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan. And all of those things started to coalesce. But a spark is always thrown and it is that moment when you sit bolt upright. With Be Near Me, I had been interested in those priests in small towns and the accusations that had been made against them. One morning at the shaving mirror I just heard Father David’s slightly self-confident, public school-educated voice in my head; he was saying slightly unspeakable things of an entertaining sort, and I walked away from the mirror and went into my study and typed out the first four sentences of the book in his voice. It had arrived.

Anne was a photographer in the 1960s. Do you think photography has lost an ethical consideration of its subjects since that heyday?

I don’t think so. There are still many brilliant, humane photographers who help you see things in a new way. I think we need them more than ever.

I didn’t meant professional photography, but rather photography in general. Anne is an artist, but most photographs taken in the modern world seem like strange morally acceptable invasions of privacy.

Well, we’re in the soulless age of the selfie, where things are scarcely worth allowing to happen unless they are instantly photographed. People used to live their lives and experience their joys and sadnesses, their miracles and banalities, and sometimes they would be in a rare position to see them photographed. Now it’s the other way round.

Everything is understood as a photo opportunity. You see it at the school gates. The first day at school is a press conference. You do wonder what it means for privacy. What if the kids just think: why would I be interested in doing anything unless I was being photographed doing it? What is privacy like for those kids? What about going off to a quiet corner where nobody will know what you’re doing or see you or record you? I’m talking about that quiet corner that was once a preserve of literature, of reading, of the imagination.

In Maf the Dog Marilyn Monroe tells Jack Kennedy that ‘the thing concealed by fame is self-knowledge’. Now that everyone is famous in their own eyes, do you think it is possible to really know who we are? 

I like your way of putting it. Everyone’s now famous in their own eyes, and for longer than the 15 minutes allotted by Andy Warhol. I think I agree with Jack Kennedy’s assessment of what fame does to a person — I mean, I gave him the line because I thought it was something he would say, but I also happen to agree. Fame is curious, because it seems to the beholder that it will mean a higher reality, when, in fact, what you notice — if you spend time around the famous — is how denuded of reality they are. It’s a modern conundrum and it deserves as many novels as the Victorians devoted to city life. But your question was essentially philosophical. Can we know ourselves? You’re probably asking the wrong person. I mean, to tell you the truth, my ego disappears so completely into the writing that I can barely identify the man who wrote it. ‘That’s why there could never be a great biography of a writer,’ wrote Scott Fitzgerald, ‘because a writer, if he’s any good, is too many people.’

That reminds me of a good question you asked Mailer about writing ‘as a sort of self-annihilation’. It always seems strange to me that during the act of writing one feels almost selfless, yet the end product is stamped with some essence of oneself.

That’s right. Some writers simply discover themselves in the act of disappearing. Keats understood it very well and put a name to it: ‘negative capability’. I know a number of writers, some of whom are very lively out in the world, very charismatic, who become a perfect void when they sit down at the desk. They become a ghost. Yet the resulting writing is as personal as their eye-colour and as genial as their voice.

Do you think art can show us who we think we’re not?

That’s definitely more like it. The aforementioned Robert Louis Stevenson never lost sight of the possible Mr Hyde standing within the consciousness of every well-meaning doctor. I’ve never really trusted people who believe too much in what they believe. I grew up knowing that artists would refuse to comfort themselves with daily certainties, but to face the unimaginable, in themselves, in the world. Think of Robert Burns and how questioning he was of power and false witness, but always with a personal voice, tender to art and nature and hope, too. It’s often the poets, by the way, going further with the language, changing places with themselves.

In The Illuminations Anne lives her life largely in a dream, and lives within ‘an ideal version of herself’. Do you think it’s a general truth that people need to sustain that illusion of who they could be?

It always seemed to me an aspect of working-class life in Scotland — investing in an ideal version of yourself, or ‘putting on a show’ as my granny would have said. People tell stories in order to live, and ‘constructing’ yourself was part of the daily round where I grew up. Anybody who thinks working-class life is all about gritty realism never danced at the Glasgow Barrowland, never enjoyed an evening of whiskies on the Royal Mile, and they don’t remember Pat Phoenix as Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street, who, in our house, not only represented the 1960s, but embodied the idea of how to deal with reality — by having your hair done, and by overcoming, by dint of mouth, people’s attempts at telling you who you ‘really’ are.

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog aside, your novels seem to map changes in the aspirations of the working class over the last thirty to forty years. Would you agree? 

Aspiration has always been such an interesting word to me, partly because it sounds like expiration, as if to aspire is akin to breathing. I think every character I’ve ever written has had a relationship with that notion, and, though they haven’t all been working class, they’ve all been in touch with a working-class community. Hugh Bawn in Our Fathers aspires to rid Glasgow of its slums and encourage people into new, high-rise living. Maria Tambini in Personality aspires to become a famous singing star, somehow rescuing her island family from all its past disappointments. Father David, in Be Near Me, aspires to know himself in the very act of endangering his faith. The dog shouldn’t be excluded: he aspires to know human beings better than they know themselves. The Illuminations comes from a new direction. The people in this novel have put their aspirations aside in order to respect other duties of the heart. The working-class might have changed out of all recognition since I was young — I make no complaint, but their aspirations are material in a way that ours just couldn’t have been. And yet, it’s not gloomy: there’s an entire generation of young people in Scotland that aspires to get rid of unfair politicians and their knackered parties.

Anne says that form in art tells its own story. The Illuminations is told in a series of short scenes, almost like vignettes. What is the story of form in this novel?

That’s an especially good question. I wanted the scenes to work like photographs in a family album — ‘here’s Anne in her college days’, ‘here’s Luke in Afghanistan’, ‘oh, here they are together in the laundry room in Saltcoats’ — and that method was informed by Anne’s having once been was a brilliant documentary photographer. So I wanted the form and the content to be united. Also — I wanted sliding perspectives in the scenes themselves. Tradition tells you, when writing in the third person, to have a centre of consciousness in each scene, but life often isn’t like that, especially in certain social situations — old people’s homes, or battle platoons — where a group mind can seem to emerge, and where the point of view will now and then slide between the persons present. It does something new to the dialogue if you can animate how people are thinking both together and apart. I wanted sheer clarity in the framing but an elision in the perspective, and I use those photographic terms advisedly. I knew it from the start. The book wouldn’t settle for just describing Anne’s early vision as an artist: it wanted the form of the novel itself to bring new light to her vision, and the reader to complete it.

In Be Near Me The Iraq War informs much of the conversation between the characters, and in The Illuminations the war in Afghanistan plays a central role. The character Mark also returns. Did you conceive of The Illuminations as a continuation of this earlier work?

No, there’s no continuation, except that it’s set in Ayrshire again, and the young boy Mark makes an appearance. When he joined the Army at the end of Be Near Me, I knew that Mark would return in the future, because I always knew that I wanted to write a novel that would try to get inside the experience of modern Scottish soldiers fighting in these supposed ‘humanitarian’ wars.

Many of the young people in Be Near Me and the soldiers in The Illuminations seem entirely devoid of seriousness, almost to the point of nihilism. Is that something you’ve observed or experienced about being young? 

The young soldiers in The Illuminations are obsessed with cars, rock music, tattoos, video games, party drugs, girls, fancy watches, and the army. If you take out the words ‘the army’, that stands for most of the boys I grew up with. It’s true we were also into films and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but I’d be lying if I said that my experience of youth was of curious, bright young things avid for learning. But charisma takes many forms and I loved the friends I grew up with, just as I love the boys in this novel, and sometimes their honesty is the only kind to be found.

You’ve been to Afghanistan. For many people the war has been an operational and ethical disaster. Do you see it that way?

Truly — a complete disaster — on every level. We’ve killed thousands of civilians and pushed the minds of an entire generation of Muslims towards intolerance. We’ve handed an agenda of grief to millions of people and reduced our stature around the world. We have lied, cheated, tortured, and killed our way across a stretch of the world we still don’t understand, and have brought an army home that feels defiled. At the last count, we lost 453 British soldiers and saw 2600 wounded. In operational terms, it achieved nothing. And in ethical terms, it was shameful: young, bored British squaddies firing £70,000 Javelin rockets at houses made of mud.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but have there been many serious novels that have followed soldiers in the British army through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I’m 46 years old, and there have been small, desperate, expensive, and sometimes illegal British wars going on since 1982, when I was 14. A whole generation has grown up that doesn’t know what it’s like not to see UK servicemen being sent home dead or wounded. And you could count the number of novels on one hand. Amazing, no? Especially given the entire literature that came out of the First and Second World Wars. Of course, there’s a reason for that: novelists no longer go to war.

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